Carbon in construction comes to the forefront

30 November 2021 | Saf Malik

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Sustainability is often a focused on operations, but what if construction could be greener, too? Saf Malik reports

Demand for data centres has skyrocketed over the past few years. And with that, across the world, hyperscalers have been taking measures to become more sustainable – firmly putting the environment on many corporate agendas. However, this conversation is often largely dominated by operational sustainability once the data centre is built and in use.

While firms continue to make such pledges after the construction of their data centres, the environmental impact during the actual construction process is frequently overlooked.

Building Transparency is a non-profit organisation that aims to provide open access and tools to support swift action across the building industry in addressing the role of embodied carbon in climate change. The company’s executive director, Stacy Smedley, believes we are at a tipping point as an industry because of the emissions created by the construction of data centres.

“The industry has been thinking about carbon emissions and buildings for four decades, but I think the carbon emissions of the construction of the buildings has just come to the forefront in the last five years,” Smedley says.

She adds that there is a growing urgency around the issue, given the possible environmental ramifications of large-scale projects. Large tech companies are embracing net zero-carbon policies and since these commitments are key parts of their value chain, they must reassess the materials they are purchasing for their buildings.

“There’s a heightened awareness and there are also leading tech companies starting to think about alternative materials for data centre construction,” Smedley says.

“I know companies are looking to mass timber or bio-based materials.”

She notes that there is ongoing research into using such materials – but questions still remain, given that companies still know surprisingly little about alternative methods and materials.

“These projects are ongoing and we are at a discovery phase right now – which is okay. We have to do the discovery first, before we make the reductions.”

A report by global consultancy firm Turner & Townsend highlighted the various costs attached to the production and delivery of data centres. The report warns of further cost escalation to meet decarbonisation goals, yet respondents indicated mixed confidence in the ability of data centres to achieve net zero carbon. In total, 40% of those surveyed considered net zero-carbon data centres to be achievable within the next five years.

Methods

Dan Ayley, global head of hi-tech and manufacturing at Turner & Townsend, questions whether companies know how to reduce carbon emissions by substantial amounts, despite it being a “vital” part of the sector.

“All of the right pledges are being made from enterprises, but do they know how to do it?” Ayley asks.

“We have been talking about reducing waste and modern methods of construction for a very long time but we do not see enough progress.”

Ayley thinks that companies are more inclined to follow construction methods that are familiar to them, rather than taking risks. He adds that when firms are under pressure to deliver faster, they want to use a tried-and-tested formula with people and organisations they have worked with before.

“It needs someone to be bold and practise what we know is available to companies,” he says.

“There are schemes where the power can come from renewable sources and it would make a huge difference, but they are in locations that are not always associated with existing and mature data centre markets.”

Location
Location is becoming an increasingly important factor for data centres aiming to reduce carbon emissions, particularly during the construction process.

In October, Orange Poland unveiled its new Warsaw Data Hub facility, which contains data halls that will host the firm’s infrastructure and digital services. The telco’s latest facility contains four 400 square foot data halls that will host Orange Poland’s network infrastructure as well as hosting services for customers.

Construction on the data centre began last year but plans for the facility go back as far as seven years, according to Jacek Hutyra, Orange Poland’s climate officer.

Poland is a particularly challenging case for Orange, given its heavy reliance on coal. In all, 75% of the country’s energy is produced by coal and its government has been increasingly reluctant to turn to renewable energy sources.
Hutyra notes that while Orange has a direct presence in 30 countries and an indirect presence in as many as 150 countries, one third of its global emissions come from Poland alone.

Due to unavoidable carbon elsewhere in the operation chain, Hutyra says it was essential for this latest data centre to be constructed in an environmentally efficient manner.

“Our network teams started the energy optimisation programme in 2014 and they have been designing and implementing all sorts of actions to reduce energy consumption of data centres,” he says.

He adds that, since the commencement of the programme to build the data centre in Warsaw, the company has saved more than 500,000 tonnes of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere.

“The number one thing for me is what energy it is using and where this energy is coming from. This is especially relevant in Poland, where this energy is highly carbonised,” he adds.

The data centre industry is just one of the markets that have experienced significant disruption over the past 18 months. Ayley says material shortages brought about by Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic have added to companies’ unwillingness to become greener.

“The challenge for the global industry is how to deliver investment against a backdrop of rising material and labour costs as well as a critical decarbonisation agenda,” he says.

Ayley adds that the equipment is an integral part of the process and delivering projects on time – but most processes can’t be carried out until that equipment is in place.

“The sector needs to adopt a programmatic approach which looks holistically at supply chain capability – identifying areas of innovation in build processes and ongoing operations that improve cost and carbon performance,” he says.

New versus existing

The Turner & Townsend report also notes that in order to make construction less carbon-intensive, companies should be looking to convert former industrial spaces into data centres rather than taking the cheaper route of building an entirely new one.

Smedley agrees. She believes that reusing buildings and investing money into optimisation, whether that is new mechanical systems or power purchase agreements, are a more valuable way for hyperscalers to spend money.
“If we took all of the money that we were spending to build things new and just spent it on things on the efficiency side, we could set up projects to make those data centres more efficient,” Smedley says.

She notes that if firms were to reuse industrial sites, they would be negating emissions with the manufacturing materials for that project. The concrete and steel in the buildings will not be demolished and replaced with new concrete and steel that would be responsible for high emissions.

“We would basically be saving those emissions entirely,” she adds.

While Ayley believes companies should convert from industrial spaces, he is sympathetic towards firms choosing to knock buildings down, noting that most of the time it is quicker and easier for these hyperscalers to start again than it is to remodel.

“I would encourage further conversion of buildings, but I understand why customers choose not to and it generally is all about speed rather than price,” he says.

Alternatives

There are alternative construction methods and materials that hyperscalers can utilise in order to reduce carbon emissions. While they may come at “small premiums”, such methods could become more widely adopted in the near future.

“There’s always going to be a small premium as we move to zero-carbon materials but I’m hopeful it won’t be giant,” Smedley says.

She notes that because companies are beginning to compete for materials on cost and carbon, this could force suppliers to innovate in order to remain competitive.

On the building materials side, Smedley says that companies could source steel manufactured using hydrogen.
Hybrit, in Sweden, is one such firm that has made this move, aiming to replace coking coal traditionally needed for iron ore-based steel manufacturing, with hydrogen. This will result in the world’s first fossil-free steel making technology, with virtually no carbon footprint. Hybrit’s goal is to have a solution for fossil-free steel by 2026.

With cement, though, the process is slightly more complicated. Smedley says that firms can look into capturing the carbon coming out of the cement kiln and liquifying it or sequestrating it into aggregates.

“With these processes, I don’t think we can get to carbon free, but we can get close,” she says.
According to Smedley, education must happen before discovery occurs at scale.

“At Building Transparency, we are trying to bring leaders from across all building sectors to show what is possible for everyone else,” she says.

“It’s a call to action from me to the large data centre developers that are looking at this right now to share what they are learning and educating their partners and competitors.”

Smedley adds that we now know how to account for and reduce emissions but spreading the right information is vital to the future of the data centre market.